Thursday, August 20, 2009

Seeing analogies: the brain's most powerful lever

Generally speaking, leverage is the ability to gain powerful results when applying only a moderate amount of energy. Mental leverage, more specifically, might refer to our ability to gain powerful thinking results by applying the brain's built-in capabilities.

So it is time to talk about what might be the most powerful lever built into our brains. It is powerful because it is easy for us - child's play for our neo-cortexes (or, depending on how literally you take Piaget, at least adolescent's play). It is the default tool for all learning - the ability to see similarities between relationships, the ability to see analogies.

If you are reading this blog, chances are good that you already know who Alex Osborn was. But if by some chance you are wondering if he might be related to Ozzy Osborn, then I have an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leverage I'm talking about. Supposing I told you that Ray Kroc (founder of MacDonald's) was related to fast food franchising in the same way that Alex Osborn was related to the process of brainstorming? Your mind might immediately jump to a guess about my friend Alex - that he originated brainstorming, that he popularized brainstorming, that he made a fortune in brainstorming.... And for the most part, you would be on target. Alex Osborn, author of Applied Imagination, 1953, was the advertising executive generally credited with both inventing and popularizing the method known as brainstorming. His book provided what he referred to as "the principles and procedures of creative problem-solving."

So here's my question: Assuming you were not familiar with Alex Osborn before, how did you arrive at your guess of what he might have done? Essentially, your brain reasoned from something you knew (the relationship of Ray Kroc to fast food franchising) to something that was unfamiliar (the relationship of Alex Osborn to brainstorming). Your reasoning was based on the similarity between the relationships. Ray Kroc himself may not have had anything in common with Alex. Finding some commonality between brainstorming and fast food franchising is a stretch at best. But the relationship between (on the one hand) Ray and what he originated with McDonald's and (on the other hand) Alex and what he did with brainstorming is similar - some would say "parallel."

What I find remarkable about this capability of "seeing analogies" is that no one had to teach it to you. By the time your brain could reason abstractly, it had probably developed this particular skill. Maybe you have only used it to talk about Oprah Winfrey as "the Michael Jordan of the talk show." Maybe you have used it to describe the relationship of necessity and invention ("motherhood"?). Or maybe you have used it to understand the historic relationship of the Soviet republics to the Soviet Union ("satellites"). In each of these examples, the same cognitive skill is at work: your brain is seeing a similarity between relationships.

There's a lot more to talk about here. If you are an educator, you're probably thinking about how much faster a student might learn a new subject if someone could just provide the right analogies. If you are a marketer, you may be thinking about how convincing a well-chosen analogy can be. If you are a scientist or a politician, you may be getting ready to protest this post, to assert how powerfully misleading an analogy can be when one is seeking to slant the facts. Baby boomers may recall, for example, the "domino theory" that was applied in the 1960s to justify the American presence in Vietnam.

All of these uses and misuses, of course, are exactly the point. I'm not necessarily suggesting that we need to use more analogies. Astute observers can easily make the case that our media and politicians are already guilty of overuse. I'm suggesting that gaining powerful thinking results requires understanding this capability of seeing analogies - so that we know how to understand an analogy, how to analyze its meaning and implications, and what to examine to determine whether it is apt. There's plenty more to talk about on the subject.

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